Johnny Manziel: Will He Be the Biggest Football Star Of Our Time?

Kerrville, Texas and Beaver Falls, Penn., have a lot in common. Both are a little less than an hour from a major city (San Antonio, Pittsburgh), both are home to fewer than 25,000 people, and both have produced living legends. 

Joe Namath was the pride of Beaver Falls. As a three sport standout, he thrilled local crowds with dunks, home runs, and touchdown passes. Baseball came knocking first in 1961 with major league offers as high as $40,000.

Namath, the youngest of five children, respected his mother's desire for him to get a college education. Namath struggled academically, which ruled out numerous suitors in the north, namely the University of Maryland. Luckily for Namath, Alabama and Bear Bryant had no problem taking a chance on him. Namath was supremely talented, incredibly popular, and always had a keen sense of what was cool. This was a guy who once wore sunglasses in a Little League team photo to draw attention to himself.

But even Namath needed the right circumstances to jump from great athlete to cultural icon. Alabama was the defending national champions when Namath signed on to play for the Crimson Tide. They appeared in nationally televised bowl games. With that exposure, he went from just a great player to the face of college football by 1964, when he led Alabama to an AP national title.

He was selected first overall by the New York Jets in the AFL Draft following the season. After negotiating a record-setting contract, Namath went from the face of college football to the highest paid player in professional football. 

 

He would use his success on the field and his money in the bank to become an A-list celebrity in New York. Women, endorsements, media following, you name it, Broadway Joe was a part of it in the late 60s. At the time, everything he touched seemed to turn to gold; the Jets won the Super Bowl, his restaurant, Bachelors III, became a hotspot overnight and if you wanted to sell your product, Joe was your man.

It would take another 20 years before the same cultural formula could be duplicated. Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan became international superstars, but they lacked the kind of organic coolness that exuded from Namath all the way back to his days in Beaver Falls. He didn't need a PR team to script anything for him. Joe was the man 24/7. And there wasn't another like him, until now. 

Johnathan Paul Manziel isn't quite the physical specimen that Joe Willie Namath was in his youth, but this only contributes to Johnny's folk hero status.

A converted wide receiver, the slightly undersized Manziel began carving up defenses as a high school junior and by the time his career at Tivy High School was over he was widely considered the finest quarterback to come out of the San Antonio area since Ty Detmer in the late 80s. Neal LaHue of Roosevelt High School in S.A. who coached Drew Brees compared the quarterbacks this way, "At this point in their careers, Johnny is a more explosive athlete and faster. He has Michael Vick-type speed.

He's not just an athlete – he's a quarterback." Hank Carter of Lake Travis High paints a vivid picture of Manziel on the field, "I feel like the Manziel kid can do everything. He doesn't necessarily do everything conventionally, but the end result is as good as it gets. He's Brett Favre on a motorcycle."

Recruitniks and analysts love to gush over high school athletes, but when opposing coaches start throwing around Favre, Vick and Brees comparisons, you're entering rarified air.

 

Despite his accomplishments, ESPN ranked 38 quarterbacks ahead of Manziel in the class of 2011. And that is where the comparisons between Manziel and Namath really starts to take shape. Each needed to earn the respect of his coaching staffs and teammates and each quarterback experienced highs and lows in that process.

Namath led Alabama to a national title in 1964, but he was suspended for the final two games of the '63 season for a drinking-related incident. Manziel became the first freshman in college football history to win the Heisman trophy and he orchestrated an upset of the eventual national champions on the road in Tuscaloosa.

But Manziel also had an off-the-field incident that landed him in jail prior to the season. Namath and Manziel both took full responsibility for their actions, worked their way out of the doghouse and learned from their mistakes. 

 

Once Namath signed with the Jets and hit the New York scene, he transformed from "Beaver Falls Joe" to "Broadway Joe." Manziel had a similar transformation after an exciting debut against Florida. He wasn't just Johnny Manziel anymore. When he put on a show, he was "Johnny Football." And just like Broadway Joe with Farrah Fawcett, Johnny Football had groupies. First there was the Scooby Doo costume at Halloween and plenty of arm candy. Texas A&M #2 jerseys started flying off the shelves. After Johnny upset Alabama, his merchandise started popping up everywhere.

A&M kept him under wraps, per their freshman media policy, for as long as they could. Once his Heisman campaign reached a fever pitch, they let the most popular player in the country speak, but it was his "Superman-ing" that was doing all the talking. He won the Heisman, partied in New York with his beautiful new girlfriend and seemed unfazed by his newfound fame. He flashed cash at casinos, celebrated the New Year in style and with the heavy weight of Heisman expectations on his back, obliterated Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Some argue it was the greatest performance by a Heisman winner in a bowl game. Manziel and Namath even share their swag, although it may have been called swagger in Namath's day. (Note the same fashion sense: white cleats).  

In an era of overblown stories (Tebow, Te'o, Woods), I'm shocked that Namath and Manziel haven't been linked more prominently.

Manziel hasn't shied away from the spotlight this offseason and time will tell if the fans and the media continue their love affair. Namath wasn't the first cocky athlete to flash cash and promise victories, but he was the first to live up to and embrace the hype for an extended period of time. Johnny's debut has us all intrigued. Let's see what the kid has in store for his encore.

This originally appeared on MyHofs.com. Read the initial version here.